I never thought that I would find myself supporting Owen Paterson, the former Secretary of State for the Environment and MP for North Shropshire. I had earlier associated him with what I thought were rather unprogressive views on energy and climate change. He certainly used some unfortunate phrases too. But in a recent piece in The Ecologist  , some of the points in his recent speech are hard to disagree with.
Paterson supports greater use of local gas-fired combined heat and power (CHP) plants. Three cheers for that. The UK throws away enough cooling water from its power stations to heat its urban and suburban buildings.
He seems to support much greater efforts on other energy efficiency measures. Three more cheers. If only the UK would support other EU member states which, despite being more energy-efficient than us, are moving ahead more rapidly. The UK has been opposing these efforts.
He notes that the government’s policy of a nearly ‘all-electric future’ by 2050 appears unaffordable. Given the economics of ‘electrification’ versus the present use of gas in heating building and oil in road transport, the cost of these measures is indeed vast, when expressed in £ per tonne of CO2 displaced. Adopting a more realistic world view, Germany envisages its electricity consumption declining by 25% by 2050.
Rather than pursue a flawed policy of a ‘smart’ National Grid, bigger than today’s network, we urgently need to focus on a ‘stable grid’. The UK is more dependent on a continuous supply of electricity than it has ever been but the National Grid struggles to provide spare capacity equal to 5% of the peak demand. The CEGB provided a reserve margin of over 20%.
Moves to grid stability might include, as Patterson points out, simple controls that turn our fridges or freezers into interruptible electricity loads. That offers to reduce the peak demand by over 1 GW.
He discusses the awkward fact that burning wood does not appear to reduce CO2 emissions over the timescale of interest; i.e., the next few decades. As I pointed out in my blog of 2 May 2014, this stubborn official policy of subsidising people to burn wood, sometimes harvested by cutting down the forests of Appalachia, defies the advice of the last Chief Scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
He notes that anaerobic digestion of farm and other wastes can be very beneficial if it disposes of a waste material and produces, as its three main outputs: fertiliser, soil conditioner and clean energy. Of particular benefit are the very large digesters which are already common in Denmark and Germany and are both cheaper and more efficient than small ones.
I do disagree with Paterson on two pretty major points: shale gas and mini-nuclear reactors. On the evidence summed up in my blog of 19 April 2014, shale gas is pretty bad for the environment versus ‘conventional’ piped natural gas or even imported LNG. Maybe it is less bad than imported coal but that is hardly a ringing endorsement.
Small nuclear reactors seem set to be as unaffordable and unsuccessful as medium and large ones have proved to be for the last 60 years. Nor do they resolve the other problems associated with nuclear fission, like waste disposal, a looming shortage of uranium and proliferation. There are much better buys out there if we want to combat climate change affordably.
That apart, this article cheered me up considerably. If a former Minister from the political Right agrees that UK energy policy needs serious reform, such critical comments cannot be attributed easily to the ‘usual suspects’.